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Gender equality to safeguard the environment: how women can improve the environmental performance of the minerals sector

Gender equality to safeguard the environment: how women can improve the environmental performance of the minerals sector

May 17, 2022, by Jara Bakx and Blanca Racionero Gomez


Mining companies and stakeholders in the mining sector are increasingly acknowledging the tremendous potential and essential role of women in the minerals industry. The same trend is visible in the international discourse on climate change. By now, it is generally acknowledged that climate change and environmental degradation intersect with issues of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic status, nationality, and many other social factors, posing unequal threats to distinct groups in society and aggravating existing inequalities. We know that the impacts of ecological destruction get exacerbated by the intersection of marginalisation, due to which, for instance, Indigenous women, Black women, women in low-income communities, with disabilities and/or from the Global South bear a significantly higher burden.

But how do these two discourses intersect exactly? What role does gender play in the way people are affected by local environmental changes caused by mining activities? And how should the minerals sector engage with and include women in their sustainability strategies?

This blog explores how women are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental degradation. It looks at how important it is for companies, governments, and civil society in mining to formulate the right responses. It also sets out how women must be involved in delivering the ambitions of transitioning to a more sustainable and inclusive minerals sector. We explicitly focus on those women most affected by both climate change and mining activities, particularly in societies where women fulfil traditional gender roles related to agricultural production, energy provision, and caregiving. These women are typically most vulnerable to changes in the local environment and should therefore lead and be at the centre of the conversation.

Gender-responsive approaches must avoid being built on the image of a victimised woman. Women across the world are already organising themselves to fight ecologically destructive behaviour and contribute to community development. It is time they receive the platform and support to fulfil their potential as leaders of the global sustainability transition, especially in the historically male-dominated minerals sector.

How women in mining are disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental degradation

Women and marginalised genders experience the destruction of and damage to nature differently and more severely than cis men. For instance, the increased competition over scarce resources due to environmental degradation has exacerbated gender-based violence, at times used to assert control over natural resources. Moreover, in societies where traditional gender roles prevail, women have found to be more likely to die during a climate disaster than men due to their reduced access to early warning information and their responsibilities for securing food, caring for children, the sick and the elderly, and the provision of household water and energy. Similarly, when mining activities damage or degrade the local environment, it undermines women’s ability to provide water, food and energy and can increase their workload. For instance, the 2015 Samarco disaster in Brazil, caused by a tailing dam failure in the iron ore mine in Mariana (Minas de Gerais), destroyed the entire river and several tributaries, in turn severely impacting fishing and farming activities. This mostly affected women. Before, women provided food in their communities through farming from their gardens, but these were now covered by toxic mud. Moreover, women’s role in caring for children was affected, as leisure spaces were lost as well as the community support network. Research shows that following disasters, women have lower levels of access to adequate relief support, which can exacerbate follow-up impacts and their recovery time. In the case of Samarco, the government distribution policy for emergency aid cards focused on those people the state officials recognised as heads of the household, which were often men. This hindered women’s right to financial aid and compensation for their livelihood losses.

One of the main reasons women are generally more affected by environmental emergencies, is because they are often unable to influence environmental policies and disaster-response interventions, including in the minerals sector. This can be caused by the prevalence of traditional gender roles, intimidation, lack of credit, gender-based violence and lack of representation in decision-making processes. The under-representation of (the most marginalised) women in environmental policymaking can have disastrous effects on their resilience after livelihood losses, ability to adapt to and mitigate a changing environment, and their chances to challenge patriarchal gender norms. For instance, conservation-driven displacement of rural communities has contributed to further stripping away the land rights of, especially Indigenous, women and has led to increased gender-based violence by militarised eco-guards and park rangers. A study from Oxfam Australia shows that, as mining companies prioritise engaging with power-brokers in the community, women are often excluded from decision-making or consulted during negotiations and are overlooked in payment compensations and royalties. Another research, from the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF), highlights how women often lack access to the use of and control over resourceful land, licenses, finance, and geological data. However, evidence shows that deforestation caused by mining activities not only has a negative impact on global carbon emissions but also takes away critical resources from women in particular and exposes communities to increased risks from floods and soil erosion.

As companies in the mining sector increasingly look to improve their sustainability strategies, it is crucial that they safeguard the rights of women in their environmental policies. To do so, they must acknowledge and address the challenges women experience in getting a seat at the decision-making table. Governments and civil society have a key role to play in facilitating this as well. They can ensure that women are meaningfully engaged and included in the national and local-level discourse on mining and the environment; work with mining stakeholders to better understand the challenges to gender equality and explore potential solutions; collect and share gender-disaggregated data in the minerals sector; increase women’s access to land tenure in mineral-rich areas, as well as to information regarding the rights and duties of those with mining exploitation permits; and improve maternity rights and child-care provision.

How can women play a crucial role in supporting the sustainability objectives of mining companies?

Women in mining-affected communities feel the impact of unsustainable and environmentally harmful practices disproportionately. But their crucial role in tackling the environmental challenges in mineral production and trading is often overlooked as well.

Firstly, it is increasingly evident that when an industrial mining company actively promotes gender equality in the workforce, on boards, and in supply chains, there is a direct positive effect on the company’s sustainability performance; their level of productivity, innovation, and competitiveness; the upholding of their safety standards; and increased transparency and disclosure of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) matters. Nevertheless, women represent only an estimated 8-10% of the global industrial mining workforce and only a small minority of mining companies is currently taking proactive measures to include women in their local procurement support measures. Governments could contribute to this by providing tax incentives or subsidies to companies that invest in gender-responsive policies and skills training for women.

Secondly, securing the engagement and gaining the support of women in communities near industrial mines ensures a company’s social licence to operate: its absence has been recognised as the number-one risk faced by the mining sector. This requires companies to have a gender-responsive approach to community assessments, consultations, and benefit-sharing. Doing so would unlock a wide range of opportunities to improve the success of the mining industry’s climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. For instance, women could actively be involved in carbon accounting assessments, report generation for mining operations, or the provision of off-grid energy solutions. This would require mining companies to invest in training and skills development for women, awareness raising, and helping women gain access to finance. However, this could pay off both in terms of contributing to a gender-equitable clean energy transition, as well as through the affordable provision of, for instance, solar lighting and heating.

And thirdly, an opportunity exists for mining companies to include rural women in their conservation and restoration projects; an increasingly popular strategy for companies to reduce their environmental impact. Such restoration projects now often fail to produce any tangible results as they neglect to consider the local ecosystem conditions that determine whether a newly planted tree can actually grow or which areas are of highest ecological importance for conservation. But as women in rural communities have major roles in, for instance, small-scale agricultural production and seed selection – accomplished through the cultivation and intergenerational transfer of knowledge for the use of land, water, fauna, and flora – acknowledging (Indigenous) women’s invaluable knowledge of local ecosystems and actively involving them in conservation and restoration efforts could immensely improve the success of these projects. For instance, women could contribute to restoration projects by providing information on the best times of year to plant seeds and which seeds to plant where, as well as in the active monitoring of and caring for the seedlings. This would eventually also contribute to mining companies’ respect for women’s and the community’s right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment, avoiding the reputational damage of exclusionary and violent conservation practices, and support the empowerment of the most marginalised women.

Mining companies and their stakeholders are realising that gender-responsive policies not only help ensure that their practices do not inadvertently harm women but also build corporate resilience while improving the environmental impact of the minerals sector. A focus on gender, especially in the sustainability strategies, is a win-win for business, the environment, and human rights.

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